Oklahoma has slipped three notches and now ranks 39th among the 50 states for the overall well-being of its children, according to a report released early Tuesday by a Maryland-based foundation.
“After a brief improvement in the rankings due to the recession’s impacts on the rest of the nation, Oklahoma has begun to fall again as the overall economy improves,” said Terry Smith, president and chief executive officer of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy. “This is a clear indication that we have not been making the kinds of smart investments in children that we should be.”
Gov. Mary Fallin’s office declined comment Monday, noting that the governor had not yet seen the report.
The report ranked Massachusetts, Vermont, Iowa, New Hampshire and Minnesota as the five best states for children.
It identified Mississippi as the worst state for children, followed by New Mexico, Nevada, Louisiana and Arizona.
The rankings are contained in the 2014 edition of the KIDS COUNT Data Book, an annual publication compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore.
The report ranks states based on 16 indicators that fall under four basic categories: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community.
Oklahoma ranked among the bottom half of the states in each of the four primary categories.
Poverty is an underlying factor that contributed to Oklahoma’s low rankings, Smith said.
Nearly one in four Oklahoma children live in poverty
“Poverty is related to so many negative outcomes for kids and their families,” Smith said, citing poor academic performance and high teen pregnancy rates among areas where Oklahoma’s poor rankings appeared to be linked to its 24 percent childhood poverty rate.
Oklahoma had 47 teen births per 1,000 births in 2012. While that represented a 13 percent improvement from 2005, when Oklahoma had 54 teen births per 1,000 deliveries, it still left Oklahoma tied with New Mexico for the highest rate of teenagers giving birth in the nation.
Oklahoma needs to do a better job of being proactive rather than reactive when it comes to issues that negatively impact children, Smith said.
Smith cited Oklahoma’s poor academic rankings as an example. The data showed 70 percent of Oklahoma fourth-graders were not proficient in reading in 2013 and 75 percent of eighth-graders were not proficient in math.
Hiring more bilingual teachers is one way the state could improve academic performance, he said.
About 48 percent of the children in Oklahoma City Public Schools are Hispanic and many come from Spanish-speaking homes, he noted.
“It’s hard enough for kids to get through pre-K and get into the first grade, and these kids are having to learn an entirely new language,” he said.
More bilingual teachers could ease that transition, he said.
In addition, child abuse and neglect are huge and growing problems in Oklahoma. The number of children in state custody has soared from 7,970 at the end of 2010 to about 11,500 today.
“We really need to invest in prevention programs for kids,” Smith said. “For example, there’s a program called Home Visitation, which has kind of been on the chopping block for the last few years to be eliminated. But that’s a program where a registered nurse goes into the home of a young mom and helps her care for the health needs of her baby and her own needs ... Programs like that are really child abuse prevention programs.”
By the numbers
Following are some of the KIDS COUNT report’s Oklahoma findings: